Virgil van Dijk

Champions League
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Champions League: History looms over Liverpool, PSG comeback bids

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Liverpool is hoping lessons from its history can lead it back from a first-leg deficit in the UEFA Champions League, while Paris Saint-Germain hopes to expel its UCL demons.

Both sides trail heading into home second legs on Wednesday. PSG brings an away goal to the Parc des Princes, while Liverpool was blanked by Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Liverpool star Virgil Van Dijk says the Reds can lean on their history, including the remarkable comeback over Barcelona in last year’s tournament.

The Reds knew they weren’t bringing any away goals home to Anfield for that second leg, and that hill was a much steeper climb. From The Liverpool Echo:

“We couldn’t give any chances away against Barcelona, either,” Van Dijk said. “We will go with the same mindset as always. … We have to get everyone going from the first second to the last. Things can happen and they could be the better team but we all want to show why we want to go through with our qualities and deserve to be in the next round.”

Liverpool will have captain Jordan Henderson back in the fold, a significant lift for a side that has endured relative struggles since the first-leg loss.

As for PSG, it is looking to get over a historical hump. The Ligue 1 outfit has lost in the last three Round of 16s after losing in four-straight quarterfinals between 2013-16.

PSG has health concerns of its own down 2-1 after the first leg loss to Borussia Dortmund in Germany.

The good news is that Kylian Mbappe tested negative for coronavirus. The bad news is that he’s been sick nonetheless.

More bad news? The match will not feature PSG’s home faithful.

“We cannot explain what this difference means, being without our fans is something enormous,” said manager Thomas Tuchel. “We must be capable of adapting. The situation is bizarre. We are sad to play without our fans. The atmosphere at the Parc des Princes can be amazing, it can help, it can put a lot of pressure on our opponent. We must deal with it alone. We are happy to be able to play this match. We are preparing things tactically, technically, we are confident in our capabilities, our qualities and the team to be able to win this match.”

Both matches kickoff at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Atletico Madrid takes first leg versus Liverpool

Liverpool
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Saul Niguez scored in the fourth minute and Atletico Madrid blanked and frustrated Liverpool in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg on Tuesday in Spain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Liverpool had 73 percent of the ball but failed to put any of its eight shots on target, including a cherry chance for Mohamed Salah to head home an equalizer.

The sides meet again at 4 p.m. ET March 11 at Anfield.


Three things we learned

1. Mane, Salah struggle: This was a not a banner day for two of the best wingers in the world. Mohamed Salah missed one solid and one excellent chance to score an away goal, and won just 2 of 8 duels. Mane was nearly as poor, taking a silly yellow card before being removed at halftime with a 2 of 9 record in duels.

2. Lodi locks down the left: Atleti’s 21-year-old left back may’ve signed from Brazilian club Athletico Paranaense this summer, but he looks like he’s been in Diego Simeone’s system since he was an academy kid. Lodi recorded six tackles, two clearances, two interceptions, 10-of-12 duels won and a key pass.

3. The bounce goes against Liverpool: So many times this season, the Reds have seemingly willed a decisive bounce in their direction. It’s hard to fault Fabinho for a ball bounding off him and onto the path of Saul, but that’s why this match is 1-0. Just luck.

Man of the Match: Saul and Thomas Partey were terrific in the heart of Atleti’s midfield, and Saul gets our nod given his goal. He was 5-for-5 in dribbles, passed at 85 percent, won 10-of-12 duels, and had three clearances, two interceptions, and two tackles.


Atletico were all over the visitors, and an early corner got them on the board when Saul cleaned up a mess at the near post.

It was the first goal conceded by Liverpool in 379 minutes, according to the broadcast.

The Reds had almost all of the ball but had trouble with Atleti’s disciplined shape, and a Renan Lodi cross was almost enough for Alvaro Morata to make it 2-0.

Virgil Van Dijk‘s failed clearance led to an Alvaro Moarata acute-angled shot, but Alisson Becker dealt with it.

Jan Oblak gave the ball away at the other end and the ball ended up in his net, but Mohamed Salah was offside when Fabinho hit him with a quick pass.

Liverpool had another chance in the 29th minute, but Andy Robertson spun his shot wide of the frame.

Trent Alexander-Arnold served up a couple of unsuccessful corners soon after Salah screwed a quality opportunity well over the goal.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Atleti was attacking again early in the second half, and a rare Andy Robertson error was bailed out by poor control in the final third.

Salah headed wide when Joe Gomez charged forward to send in a perfect back post cross.

Lodi then set up Morata for a glorious chance near the penalty spot. The ex-Chelsea man flubbed it in spectacular fashion.

Jordan Henderson missed another prime chance to get an away goal, as the Reds’ luck just wasn’t in Madrid.

How important is Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool?

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Roy Keane. Michael Jordan. Mark Messier. Tom Brady. Virgil Van Dijk.

Every great team has a great leader driving it on, demanding high levels day in, day out and raising the bar so high than even their incredibly talented teammates get nowhere near reaching it. They may not be the most gifted players technically but there’s something about them, an aura and confidence they exude which makes everyone around them feel unstoppable.

That is what makes them, and their teams, so great.

Virgil van Dijk and this current Liverpool team well and truly slot into that category as he is the driver of one of the greatest teams in sporting history who sit 22 points clear at the top of the table and can win the PL title at the earliest point in history.

The way in which they are calmly but mercifully dismantling every team that comes their way reflects VVD’s relaxed relentlessness. They are on track to go the entire 2019-20 Premier League season unbeaten (24 wins from 25 games so far) while setting records for the most wins and points secured in a single season and are closing in on Arsenal’s record of 49 PL games unbeaten.

Jurgen Klopp‘s entire team deserve praise but Virgil van Dijk deserves the most.

Jordan Henderson is the captain who has taken his game to new levels, Alisson‘s heroics in goal aren’t under-appreciated, two British full backs have developed into world-class talents and the front three speak for themselves. But Van Dijk kicked Klopp’s project onto the next level as soon as he arrived at Anfield.

Don’t be fooled by Van Dijk’s delightful flicks, masterful long-range passes, elegant stride and beautifully cushioned headers. He is not here to chillax. He is at Liverpool to win. If you watch Virgil van Dijk for the first time, it is like watching a U18 player in a U12 league. He is quicker, stronger and smarter than every other player on the pitch.

Perhaps the only other signing in Premier League history to have more of an impact, on the pitch and off it, than Van Dijk is Eric Cantona. There is a relaxation and likeable arrogance about both individuals. Yes, Cantona was out there and still is, but the way his arrival kicked on a very good United team to one which became a dynasty was both subtle and dominant. Van Dijk’s arrival in January 2018 had the same impact at Liverpool.

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Liverpool’s previous laughably shaky defense suddenly had a new leader, one who demanded the best each and every time they stepped out on the pitch. Van Dijk does not suffer fools gladly. He has work way too hard from Groningen to Celtic and then to Southampton to get to this point and not make the most of it.

Since he arrived at Liverpool from Saints just over two years ago for a then world-record fee for a defender of $100 million they have lost just four games in the Premier League. They have finished fourth then second, won the Champions League and are on the verge of a record-breaking Premier League title in 2019-20. He was also runner up in the Ballon d’Or voting for 2019 (the last defender to win that title was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006), was the man of the match in the UCL final, has become the captain of the Dutch national team as their incredible resurgence under Ronald Koeman continues and simply put the last two years could not have gone any better for him.

When you speak to Virgil van Dijk you start to understand why he is achieving all of this. He looks into your eyes as if he’s searching for your soul to see if you are worthy of his time. At least, that’s what it feels like. With a laugh and a quick quip in his fluid Dutch accent which is almost as smooth as his play on the pitch, he calms down every situation but doesn’t waste a word with his answers. Ruthless. Efficient. Classy.

“Everyone can have their opinion, have their say on the situation we are in right now but we all know that we as a group, everyone who is involved at Melwood, we are not getting carried away,” Van Dijk told Pro Soccer Talk after his header set Liverpool on their way to a big win against bitter rivals Man United at Anfield last month. “The second part of the season just started and we all know anything is still possible. The good thing is that we have that mentality that we just focus on one game at a time.”

There is that focus and that drive from Van Dijk which you can see during and after games. He isn’t one for over-celebrating and can often be seen throwing his arms in the air in disdain when a loose pass is played or a mistake is made by one of his teammates. But the other side to him is that he is a total team player, one who lavishes praise on his teammates and can easily switch off as he’s often seen smiling and joking and enjoying time with his family and daughters in the tunnel area at Anfield after the full time whistle.

From a statistical point of view, Virgil van Dijk is very, very good but his numbers do not actually place him as being head and shoulders above other Premier League center backs like you might think.

Neal Thurman, the Fantasy Premier League Expert/Editor for our partners Rotoworld.com, breaks down Van Dijk’s numbers which add further fuel to the fire that his mentality and the aura he has perhaps outweighs how he actually plays on the pitch.

Take it away, Neal…


When you look at the numbers on the surface, Virgil Van Dijk doesn’t appear to be exceptionally dominant. Very good, yes. Historically exceptional? That takes a bit more work to uncover.

When you dig into deeper statistics that describe a defender’s activity on the pitch – things like interceptions, tackles won, clearances, and aerial duels won – you see a player who is among the league leaders but not one who is dominant in the way that N’Golo Kante was in his pomp at Leicester City.

Here’s a list of the league leaders in those defensive stats:

Player Team Matches Played Interceptions Tackles Won Clearances Aerial Duels Won Combined per Match
James Tarkowski Burnley 25 43 23 130 124 12.8
Harry Maguire Manchester United 25 42 19 93 117 10.84
Virgil Van Dijk Liverpool 25 26 12 119 116 10.92
Ben Mee Burnley 25 37 19 122 111 11.56
Jack O’Connell Sheffield United 26 31 17 121 100 10.34

The notion that all of these defensive actions are necessarily equal in value isn’t the point of the exercise but rather to point out that, by the raw numbers, Virgil Van Dijk is among the best center backs in the Premier League but not necessarily a dominating force.

The “eye test” tells us otherwise so we have to dig a little deeper and perhaps the way to do that is to layer on the concept of style of play and the resulting opportunity for a center back to take defensive actions.

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Simply put, James Tarkowski, Ben Mee, and Jack O’Connell have a lot more opportunity to make interceptions, win tackles, clear the ball, and win defensive aerial duels because their opponents have the ball a lot more. Time of possession stats have their own challenges but, in this case, judging this by the number of passes each team completes is ideal because any pass made is an opportunity for a defender to intervene.  What the numbers show us is that Liverpool enjoy just under 61% of possession while Sheffield United only have the ball 43.5% of the time and Burnley even less at 40.4% (Manchester United are less ball dominant but closer to Liverpool at 56.5%).

If you want to get a sense of how dominant Virgil Van Dijk is, think about the fact that he is putting up statistics equivalent to the other statistical leaders in the league in defensive statistics with only two thirds the opportunities to make those interventions. If you corrected for possession, Van Dijk’s would be in the range of 16 to 17 defensive contributions per match which would better approximate his dominance as a center back.


So, there you have it. In a team which doesn’t have to defend that often because they are so good going forward, Van Dijk still ranks among the Premier League’s best center backs.

He leads the Premier League with more completed passes (2,051) than any other player this season and the Dutchman had an incredible run of not being dribbled past for 49 Premier League games up until the start of this season.

All of this adds to his aura and there is almost an acceptance of defeat among strikers who now come up against him. They don’t try and dribble past or him or challenge him in the air or try to run behind him because they think and probably know, and for good reason, that he will win that duel.

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Virgil van Dijk’s importance to Liverpool cannot actually be measured. The stats show he is an extremely good defender but they can’t measure how big of an impact his mentality, self-confidence and ability to lead others has had on the Liverpool players, staff and even the fans.

When we asked him about Liverpool’s impressive defensive record, the best in the PL which has led to 11 one-goal wins this season, VVD is quick to praise his teammates.

“Everyone is involved in that,” Van Dijk says humbly without hesitation. “We have a fantastic goalkeeper, the full backs doing their jobs, the midfielders and then obviously it starts up front. It is a collective thing but as a defender we are very pleased to keep clean sheets because I think with us, if we keep a clean sheet there is a big chance to win the game. It is a good feeling.”

Simply put: Liverpool have never struggled to score goals but keeping them out was the problem. VVD has fixed that.

A future Ballon d’Or winner, Van Dijk has the potential to go down in history as one of the all-time great center backs and he has already become a Liverpool legend in just two years at the club.

That is so tough to do at such an esteemed, historically successful club. Think about all of the legends which have pass through Anfield and Van Dijk is already among them.

The Song Liverpool fans have for him (to the tune of Dirty Old Town) and chant time and time again sums up his importance and he seems to almost feed off the lyrics as a calming influence in possession and a dominant force at both ends of the pitch.

He’s our center half,
He’s our number four,
Watch him defend,
And we watch him score,
He’ll pass the ball,
Calm as you like,
He’s Virgil van Dijk,
He’s Virgil van Dijk.

Premier League Preview: Liverpool v. Southampton

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Liverpool puts its unbeaten Premier League season on the line Saturday when Southampton visits Anfield (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The storyline is going to be the same each week until someone scores more goals than the Reds in a single match. They have won 23 of 24 matches and only 14 more to go.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

The next scrap comes with Saints, who have been thriving after early-season misery. Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s men have risen to ninth place, three points off fifth-place Manchester United.

Liverpool beat Saints 2-1 at St. Mary’s on Aug. 17.


Injuries/suspensions

Liverpool: OUT —  Xherdan Shaqiri, Sadio Mane, James Milner, Nathaniel Clyne. QUESTIONABLE — Adam Lallana, Divock Origi.

Southampton: OUT — Stuart Armstrong. QUESTIONABLE — Yan Valery, Jannik Vestergaard, Shane Long.


Probable lineups

Liverpool: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson, Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Minamino, Firmino, Salah.

Southampton: Gunn, Bertrand, Bednarek, Stephens, Danso, Boufal, Ward-Prowse, Hojbjerg, Redmond, Adams, Ings


What they’re saying

Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp on Mohamed Salah’s future: “How can you see the hunger to stay at Liverpool? It looks to me like he is really settled to be honest. I have no idea, actually, but you could ask me the same question for all the others and I have no idea. I didn’t think about it until [the press] asked me.

Virgil van Dijk on leaving Southampton for Liverpool: “The decision I made has not been too bad. I’m 28 now and I want to fulfil every dream I ever had. Life can be short. Your career can be short as well. I want to enjoy every minute of it. I’m enjoying playing with this team and this manager. We can’t look too far ahead. But right now, I’m enjoying it. I don’t look at the table. You [only] need to look at the table at the end of the season.”

Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl on loaning Kyle Walker-Peters“If he feels comfortable here and plays well and we feel comfortable with him and he likes to play with us, there is always an option to get him in the summer. Even if it’s not written down, there’s always an option. I always say, small flowers, you have to look after them and give them water and then they sometimes turn into beautiful flowers. This is something we try with all the young players and give them the chance to develop.”


Prediction

The Reds find a stiff test, but another 2-1 win.

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Player Ratings from Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United

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Liverpool might’ve needed a stoppage time goal to put Manchester United away, but the Reds outclassed their rivals on Sunday at Anfield.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

It was a righteous beatdown of the visitors, who were without Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford but looked more like a relegated-threatened side than one of the most successful clubs in football history.

[ MORE: JPW’s Three Things ]


Liverpool

Alisson — 9 — One of the world’s best gets an extra point for assisting Mohamed Salah‘s insurance goal.

Andy Robertson — 7 — Typical strength from the hard-working Scot.

Joe Gomez — 7

Virgil Van Dijk — 8 — Scored the decisive goal and was almost imperious at the back.

Trent Alexander-Arnold — 7

Georginio Wijnaldum — 7

Jordan Henderson — 8 — One of his best days in the shirt, winning numerous tackles and deprived of a delightful goal by De Gea.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Out 66′) — 7

Sadio Mane (Out 83′) — 5 — If he’s anywhere near his average self, he has a first half hat trick.

Mohamed Salah — 7 — Tied for a match-high shots with Mane, but had more of an edge and found a deserved goal late.

Roberto Firmino (Out 83′) — 7 — A game-high six dribbles to go with plenty of industry.

Subs 

Adam Lallana (66′) — 7

Divock Origi (83′) — N/A

Fabinho (83′) — N/A


Manchester United

David De Gea — 7 — An incredible save on Jordan Henderson on a day he had so little help.

Luke Shaw (Off 87′) — 5

Harry Maguire — 4 — Tried to do too much in his first match as full-time United captain.

Victor Lindelof — 4

Aaron Wan-Bissaka — 6 — One of few standouts on the day, with loads of energy and few ready to meet his level.

Brandon Williams (Out 75′) — 6

Nemanja Matic — 6

Fred — 7 — One of the few United players to bring effort and sharpness, but his shooting was off. Only Van Dijk attempted more passes.

Andreas Pereira (Out 75′) — 3 — Don’t let his ability to produce an edge of your seat moment detract from 16-of-26 passing and dreadful inconsistency.

Daniel James — 5

Anthony Martial — 4 — Blazed a perfect chance to tie the match over the bar, and effort wasn’t there.

Subs 

Juan Mata (In 75′) — N/A

Mason Greenwood (In 75′) — N/A

Diogo Dalot (In 87′) — N/A